I’ve written before, across a few different posts, about the challenge of giving and receiving feedback/critiques, but because of my recent involvement in two local writing groups, the topic has been on my mind again.
I think a lot of people—writers and nonwriters alike—think that receiving feedback should be easy. I mean, you just have to listen and maybe take notes. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very hard.
But as I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s tougher than it sounds to receive feedback. A writer usually gets emotionally involved in their stories to some degree, even if they’re complete fiction. When you decide to share a story for critique, you have to separate yourself from the work as much as possible, but it’s never enough. Even when you know that the story can be improved, even when you expect that the first (or second or third) readers will find problems, it’s hard to look at a copy of your story all covered in pen or pencil marks and not start having a slight panic attack.
At that stage, people who are not used to receiving feedback usually make one of two mistakes: they take everything to heart or they ignore everything. Most people can guess the folly of the latter approach, but the former is just as rash.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read about how to handle feedback is from Neil Gaiman:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
This still sticks with me because I’ve rarely heard a writer admit that not all feedback is created equal or should be given equal weight. There are a few reasons for these sub-optimal critiques: some readers will unintentionally try to rewrite your work in their own style or a style they prefer; sometimes a reader will approach your story with certain expectations, and their feedback will be about how to meet those expectations (which will always boil down to: write a different story); sometimes the story overall just won’t appeal to a particular reader.
So you, as the feedback receiver, need to learn to distinguish these critiques from the useful ones. You can still dig good advice out of feedback that falls into one of the aforementioned categories, but that takes experience and objectivity about your own work—and that is when Neil Gaiman’s advice comes in handy. If someone points out a scene that doesn’t work for them, flag that scene for your own critical evaluation (especially if other readers also pinpoint that scene as a problem), but if that person goes on to try and rewrite the scene for you, it’s probably safe to discard that part of the feedback.
This goes against the pervasive idea that once you open yourself up for critique, you have to use all the feedback. If you do that, you’ll end up with a patchwork story that has essentially been written by a group of other writers. When you ask for feedback, it is your job as the story creator to distill the critique down to its useful parts (being as objective as possible, which is another skill you develop over time) and then implement that advice.
It took me a long time to become a feedback connoisseur, and I’m still learning, but I set a few ground rules that have helped:
- It’s okay not to implement all the feedback you receive.
- Do not respond to feedback unless you are asked a direct question.
The Neil Gaiman quote above inspired the first rule; it was an important step for me to take when I started seeking feedback. The second rule came from some thoughts from John Green:
“I don’t know what happens to anyone outside the text of the novel [The Fault In Our Stars]. I have access to the exact same text that you do, and any speculation on my part about the characters or events outside the text of the novel would be no more informed or authoritative than your speculation.”
That quote is in a Q&A that is not explicitly about receiving feedback, but I took the idea of “death of the author” and decided to apply that to feedback and drafts: the story should stand on its own. The reader gleans what they do from a short story or novel, and the author’s opinion should not be considered more authoritative, as John Green puts it. With drafts it’s a little different because you might have accidentally left out vital information that the reader needs to reach the conclusion along with the characters, but I think the essence is the same for drafts as it is for published stories—your opinion as the writer is not more valuable than a reader’s opinion.
Before I came up with rule #2, I found that when I would reply to feedback, to explain or expound upon something, it almost always came across defensive or condescending even though I never meant it that way. So now I listen to feedback, I take notes, and—because it’s a draft—if they ask me a question, I will answer it. But I try to avoid getting into lengthy explanations unless I’m specifically seeking advice on a part I’m struggling with, in which case a description of what I’m trying to accomplish and how/why I’m stuck is essential.
So far, these few rules and approaches I take to receiving feedback have helped me a great deal—but as you can see, receiving critiques is just as much work, if not more, than giving them. The best thing to do is establish your own ground rules that allow you to get the most out of the feedback you receive.